Fine script does justice to Emily Carr
By Robert Amos, Special to Times Colonist October 13, 2010

It’s magic! Michael Ostroff’s new feature film Winds of Heaven weaves a living, breathing evocation of Emily Carr from a basket of disparate elements. Here is Carr for the 21st century, a woman of complexity. And you might be pleased to hear that Ostroff evokes her without using an actress to dress up like the feisty lady on the edge of nowhere.

Personally, I hate docudramas, and I bridle at any of the well-meaning women who have tried to interpret “our Emily.” Ostroff agrees, it seems, and approaches Carr by different routes. In a voice-over, the superb actress Diane D’Aquila reads the words of Carr, and she does a convincing job of delivering a carefully chosen script.

Those people who do appear briefly in the film are our contemporaries. Susan Crean is the author of The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr; Gerta Moray is the author of Unsettling Encounters: First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr; and Marcia Crosby is a well-published Haida/Tsimshian art historian.

In their essential books, each of these women has given us a fresh understanding of Emily Carr for the new century. Their presence here underscores Ostroff’s progressive and profound understanding of a woman I call Canada’s most important artist.

None of this overshadows the visual feast of the film. Ostroff had access to all the great national collections of Carr’s work, including those in Ottawa and Vancouver, and he presents us with new, up-close camerawork of unparalleled sensitivity. Never have I experienced the colours and the characters of Carr’s paintings so intensely. Mercifully, this film avoids the swoopy panning that lesser cinematographers usually revert to.

The paintings are beautifully complemented by superb on-location footage from the forests of Haida Gwaii and Goldstream. Ostroff also presents Victoria — under a dusting of snow, no less! He takes us to a potlatch, and to the National Gallery, but his most telling effects come from his use of meticulously constructed sets. Some are evocative — the old typewriter on Carr’s desk, clacking out her manuscripts, typographical errors and all. Others are more extensive — her chaotic and cluttered studio upstairs at the House of All Sorts.

Best of all is Ostroff’s faithful reconstruction of the Elephant, Carr’s caravan. A rickety old truck tows it down a dusty road in Goldstream. Later, it is at the centre of her campsite in the forest. The campfire is smouldering and an errant breeze flaps the canvas awning, for all the world as if Miss Carr had just stepped away.

Melding these images together, and taking us back in time, are snippets of archival footage — tree fallers, steam engines and kids at a residential school. These are intercut with photos of Carr, which have been chosen with a delicacy that reveals more depth of character behind her smile than I had noticed before.

To create a film about art, about First Nations issues, ecology and spiritualism — this was a challenge. To tell afresh the story of someone we thought we knew well is even more difficult. Winds of Heaven is a success on all these many levels.